Thursday, April 11, 2019

Emotional Superpowers?




Would it seem out-of-this-world if I told you that we all possess a wide variety of superpowers?  If so, hang on, because I’m about to share with you quite a bit about your superpowers!

It all starts with emotions.  There’s a tendency in society to label certain emotions as positive or negative.  Based on what I’ve learned through reading The Upside of Your Dark Side:  Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good Self- Drives Success and Fulfillment [1], this is far from how we should be viewing emotions.  Rather all emotions provide a robust amount of information to us.  For example, feeling good or bad lets us know about the quality of our progress, our interactions, and our environment.  As you may have experienced in the past, if you try to escape these emotions, you will miss out on this valuable information.

Life with a chronic illness can provide us with a roller coaster of emotions, which is why I’ve decided to do a bit deeper dive into this topic.  I want to understand more of what I’m feeling, what it all means, and what I should do with them.

So, let’s chat a bit about some of the emotions that often come with a chronic illness and see how they can be valuable to us, or more importantly, how they can become our super powers.

Let’s begin with anger – as it’s a pretty provocative emotion and one that many of us feel, whether about our illness or how people have treated us because of it.  Let’s first start with the premise that anger itself isn’t good or bad.  It’s what you do with it that matters.   When you think back on times when you have been angry, have you noticed that it may have caused you to take a few more risks?  Sometimes, taking a risk can be a really good thing.  For example, perhaps it provided the motivation you needed to share your feelings when you may have otherwise repressed them.  Doing so in a healthy manner can transition a hurtful situation into an understanding one. 

As I noted above, anger generally can motivate us to take action when perhaps we would not have done so.  By taking action, we also feel more in control.  If there’s one thing that life with a chronic illness comes with, it’s a lack of control in a lot of areas.  So, by allowing ourselves to feel our anger and put it into a productive course of action, we are gaining back some of that control.  Living in a world of ever-changing symptoms, adding control back into our lives is certainly a nice addition!

The next set of emotions that often comes hand-in-hand with a chronic illness is guilt – or it’s not-so-pretty partner, shame.  Feeling guilty is a tricky one when you live with a chronic illness.  The key question to ask in these moments is whether what you are doing is hurting or helping the situation.  Many of us feel guilty for declining invites, not getting enough done around the house, or not making it in to work because of our illness.  In these cases, the guilt is unwarranted.  By taking care of ourselves first, we are doing what we need to do to take care of our health.  We should not feel guilty for taking care of our core needs.  

There certainly are situations in which we should feel guilty for, such as being unkind to a friend or disregarding someone’s feelings.  In these cases, guilt acts as our moral compass and is a call to action to us.  It reminds us to be more sensitive in these situations.

In contrast, there is shame.   Unfortunately, many of us have encountered people trying to shame us for canceling plans, needing help, or even for being sick.  While guilt can be helpful – giving us a moment to reassess whether the situation at hand is something that we should feel guilty for (prioritizing our health is not one of them!) and if it is, the insight to respond accordingly, shame, on the other hand, is not helpful.  Shame strikes at the core of who we are as a person.  As such, it’s much harder to recover from than guilt and often can escalate the situation.  For example, has someone ever questioned the validity of your illness or the severity of your symptoms in a way that was condescending and hurts you to the core?  This emotional expression, shame, is not expression that helps any situation; rather it tends to crack relationships and shatter trust. 

The last emotion I want to touch on is anxiety.  Many of us experience anxiety, as we often don’t know what one moment or day holds to the next when it comes to our illness.  In these situations, anxiety can be a very healthy, helpful emotion.  It can be a great source of information for us.  If we can maintain the right balance of anxiety, it can help us in many ways.  It can heighten our perception of a situation, amplify our senses, and increase our ability to solve a problem.  For example, by having heightened awareness, we may be able to spot a symptom trigger before it turns into a full-blown flare-up.  Essentially, it’s our human alarm system.  We just need to make sure that we listen to it (rather than let it paralyze us) and respond in a healthy manner.  When we do so, it becomes our strength.

These are just a handful of emotions that are touched on in the book, but ones that I felt were relevant to issues we often face, sometimes daily.  I love the authors’ abandonment of the notion of labeling any of these emotions as positive or negative, discussing them instead from the perspective of each being valuable sources of information to us.  Anger, guilt, anxiety, and other “negative” emotions are really helpful in surprising ways, giving us more courage, regulating our behavior, and keeping us alert to our surroundings.   When we use them to our advantage and in healthy ways, they are sources of information that can really benefit us and lead to a more “whole” and fulfilling life. 

As the book states, “[w]hen you think about your emotions in light of the benefits associated with all feelings – positive and negative – you realize that you don’t just have one superpower, you have many.”
 
[1] Todd Kashdan, PhD, and Robert Biswas-Diener, Dr. Philos. (2014), “The Upside of Your Dark Side:  Why Being Your Whole Self – Not Just Your “Good Self-Drives Success and Fulfillment.”  New York, New York:  Hudson Street Press

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